Wednesday, February 1, 2017


It has become common for people to react to protests that they disagree with for partisan reasons with the statement: "We didn't behave this way when X happened," or some variation thereof, where X refers to some past event that they have determined is roughly similar to what the current batch of activists are protesting, but went against the critic instead. The idea is that the critic and their faction were more tolerant of political setbacks than their opposition.

This often sparks criticism when it can be shown that there were, in fact, protests of a similar sort when event X happened. And since digital cameras and camera phones have been a thing for nearly the past two decades, there is often an abundance of photographic evidence of that fact. And this triggers that most common of modern political epithets: Liar.

But I suspect that critics of protests are less likely to be denying the reality of past actions as they are the legitimacy of present ones. Because I'm not sure when people make statements like this, that seems to completely ignore relatively recent history, that they are indulging in a convenient or fabricated amnesia. Instead, they are speaking to the justifications of the parties involved. Although it's relatively easy to delve into the minutiae of a given protest and make points such as whether or not traffic was snarled, windows were broken or rocks were thrown, most "we didn't behave this way" statements and other criticisms don't make the attempt to parse things out that finely. And on social media, a lot of the criticism is directly aimed at the protesters themselves, and attributes to them any number of negative character traits. And so the point becomes not what was done, but whether or not it was justified. And in a partisan era, who is doing something and why they are doing it are often conflated.

What we often tend to think of as ironclad, universal rules are, in practice, riddled with loopholes. After all, "You will not kill," tends to have exceptions for self-defense, defending others, wartime, executions, fleeing felons and anyone sufficiently frightening. And in a society torn by factionalism, we are much more likely to accept a mitigating circumstance when it is offered by someone of our own faction, and see it as deceit in service of excusing murder when offered by someone of an opposing faction. This self-righteousness tends to grow in proportion to the enmity between the factions, as that same enmity tends to push us towards seeing opposing factions as perverse, rather than principled. And this leaves aside the tendency to deliberately shelter our own guilty and prosecute opposing innocent when we seek to make people's understandings match the reality we believe we inhabit.

And in the end, the problem with self-righteousness is that it doesn't tolerate self-reflection very well. We don't like to see ourselves as wrong (let alone perverse), and so we don't step back from our positions far enough to be able to evaluate both them, and our opponents', at once. If something happens that allows us to see others as less wrong without seeing ourselves as more wrong, that might prompt us to accept what others are doing. But if we have to admit to having behaved badly ourselves, we're less likely to want to see others as better than we already do. And so we set ourselves apart from them by claiming that they have done we we would never contemplate.

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